Bio-hackers seek to revolutionize genetics

July 5, 2010 1:13:32 PM PDT
Today's American Revolution is taking place in garages and dorm rooms.

Take Hewlett and Packard, Jobs and Wozniak, Larry Page and Sergei Brin, and now Perfetto and Jankowski. These two are bio-hackers and their garage is in Menlo Park.

A box will revolutionize genetics. That's the hope of its two developers, Josh Perfetto and Tito Jankowski. It's the first home PCR kit. A PCR is a copy machine. It copies DNA, DNA too small for medicine and law enforcement to detect without it. It won a Nobel Prize for its developer.

Until now, only big institutions could afford PCR machines at $3,000 to $10,000. But, with parts from Home Depot, this one has a price tag of less than $400. Heck, you don't even have to buy it.

"We're making the designs free for people to use," says Jankowski, "for people to change, for people to modify."

They call their project OpenPCR, in the tradition of open source software. The goal of OpenPCR is not to make research less expensive for large corporations, but to make it possible at all for people who wouldn't be able to do genetic research, such as artists and teachers.

Josh Perfetto calls them "new types of users, whether it's somebody who wants to examine the local food, or it's a high school biology lab."

"And they're not necessarily people who come from a biotech background," Jankowski adds. "Everything has DNA -- strawberries, coconuts, fish. Going around and analyzing sushi to see whether it matches the menu would be a fun project. Discovering new species would be cool."

Josh is doing just that, conducting a genetic survey of Bay waters. You can too.

  1. Purify a small sample
  2. Place it in the machine
  3. Plug in a USB cable
  4. And, email your data.

The results come back for $5 to $10. That's it.

"We're doing it just as two guys kind of working on a table," they will tell you.

Two guys funded on crowdsourcing site KickStarter, where they sought $6,000 but attracted $10,000.

Josh thinks big.

"There was a revolution starting in personal computing in the 80s. Then we had the Web in the 90s. I really see biotech as the next big thing."

Tito thinks wide.

"I'm just making biotech more accessible to people. And I think that the tools are a great way to do that."

PCR stands for Polymerase Chain Reaction. If their plan succeeds, it will be a chain reaction of people who play with DNA. The new device becomes available on the Web in the fall.


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